Performing Greece into Being: Appropriating Aeschylus' Persians for the Modern Nation

Seminar with Professor Gonda Van Steen, University of Florida

There will be a glass of wine after the seminar.

Abstract

The Greeks’ nineteenth-century engagement with Aeschylus’ Persians was both intense and indicative of a deliberate movement towards establishing the modern nation-state. The play became the crucible in which tragedy, history, melodrama, and modernity intersected.

Stephanos or Epiphanios Demetriades wrote a quasi-tragic verse adaptation of Aeschylus’ Persians in a semivernacular register of the Greek language. Editor Georgios Valetas entitled the 1805 (?) play Persians or Xerxes and named Aeschylus as its source. This work, however, draws also from Herodotus and Plutarch and has a melodramatic bent to it: its subplots read like Ottoman court intrigues and introduce new female characters and love interests. My paper shows how Demetriades liberally added to Aeschylus’ original and argues its case referring to several passages in the modern Greek idiom and in English translation. Demetriades’ tragedy Persians or Xerxes resembles the heroic-moralizing melodrama of the earlier Italian tradition (Metastasio). Its Orientalist notes underscore Greek self-congratulation and victory celebration when the Ottoman Empire or the perceived “sick man of Europe” was on the decline.

A first study of Demetriades’ play may, therefore, contribute to classical reception studies with focus on Aeschylus’ history and on its creative blending with other receptive traditions, to serve the demands of the modern Greek nation-state. It also shows how the iconic meaning of the Persian Wars outshone the actual facts and sources. Finally, it adds to our knowledge of Greek theater history of the early nineteenth century, drawing attention to texts from a forgotten periphery. 

Gonda Van Steen earned a MA degree in Classics in her native Belgium and a PhD degree in Classics and Hellenic Studies from Princeton University. As the Cassas Chair in Greek Studies at the University of Florida, she teaches courses in ancient and modern Greek language and literature. Her research interests include classical drama, French travelers to Greece and the Ottoman Empire, nineteenth and twentieth-century receptions of the classics, and modern Greek intellectual history. For the years of 2012-2014, Van Steen is serving as the President of the Modern Greek Studies Association of North America (MGSA, www.mgsa.org)

For further information, please contact Trine Stauning Willert (tsw@hum.ku.dk).